November 13, 2016
Austin Mennonite Church
Guest Speaker: Rev. Suella Gerber, pastor at Fellowship of Hope, a Mennonite church in Elkhart, Indiana.
Possibility and impossibility: creating out of nothing
Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-4, 14
What comes to mind when I say the word impossibility? What about possibility?
How do we know or decide that something is possible or impossible?
How do we respond to things that we’ve identified impossible? Or possible?
One way or another, we’re typically stopped by the impossible, aren’t we? When something’s impossible, no matter how much we wish otherwise, in the end we assume it can’t be changed. Because after all, it’s impossible! And depending on what it is…especially things like climate change or the Syrian refugee crisis or systemic injustice or the fracturing of the church…in the face of big, deep, and complex issues it’s easy to turn to despair…to become hopeless… apathetic… cynical…. Our responses to impossible events and issues aren’t just about our emotions, about how we feel, our responses are also given expression in our being—in who we are—in our speech and conversations, in the words we use, in how we talk, in the tone and content of our words.
Questions about what is or isn’t possible seem particularly poignant this week. Our country has just elected its next president. In response to the election results, half of the country is stunned by the impossible result, stopped in the face of the impossible having happened. And the other half of the country is experiencing the relief of having been heard and eagerly anticipating that something new will finally be possible. In the outcome of this election, our usual response to possibility and impossibility has been interrupted.
However we find ourselves this morning—whether in response to the election or in response to any of the impossible crises in our world—when we find ourselves being drawn to fear or despair or cynicism, we need to be reminded that as people of faith, we’re resurrection people. I need to be reminded that we are living in the time of resurrection! When my attitude and when what I say reflects fear or hopelessness, I need to be reminded that God is alive! A living God! A God of light and life and love! Our God is impossibly alive!
This is the Good News of our faith. From the opening words of our Bible, through the wilderness and the prophets, to Jesus and beyond, we see God acting in impossible places…we see God creating from nothing…saving, healing, liberating in all kinds of impossible situations.
Let’s look again at the well-known…and well-worn…words that open the Book of Genesis. “In the beginning…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” In the beginning…the earth was a chaotic, empty, wasteland! (We’re experiencing this wasteland, aren’t we?) In the beginning the earth was an empty wilderness, covered with darkness. In the beginning…life was impossible!
But we should not miss that God was there. The wind from God, or, the breath of God, was breathing over the dark, into the chaos, in the emptiness. Yet it wasn’t until God spoke words that creating started to happen. The wind of God didn’t create light, or the lights of the sky, or the birds of the air or plants and creatures. It was God’s Word that created the world. Where there was nothing, God spoke light and life into existence. Where it was formless and chaotic, God spoke definition and rhythm into existence. Into the darkness of nothing…into the darkness of impossibility…God spoke and God’s Word lit up the earth, filling it with possibility.
But we aren’t God, you might be saying! It’s true, we aren’t. But still, there’s something here for us creatures.
The Gospel of John might get us a bit closer. John, of course, opens his Gospel in the same way that Genesis begins, “in the beginning.” The same three words. But then he says something very different. “In the beginning was the Word.” Not chaos or emptiness or darkness, according to John, but the Word of God was in the beginning. The other Gospel writers, especially Luke, validate John’s narrative. In Luke, the angel brings God’s Message, God’s Word. The angel gives speech to God’s intention, announcing Mary’s pregnancy. And God said…and she was…and it was good! Very good. God creating life from nothing. What was impossible, God’s Word made possible.
But we aren’t Jesus, either, you might be saying.
So I wonder, maybe there’s more than one reason why these stories have been passed along through the ages. (Well, of course, there are many reasons!) For sure, they tell us about the impossible ways that God’s Word is creating the world…that God is speaking into the lives of human beings. But maybe these stories are also being told as a way of sparking our imaginations. After all, for God to create out of nothing, God had to first imagine something. In order for God to speak light into existence, where there was only darkness, God had to imagine light. In the telling of the biblical story, again and again, God saw life where human beings saw only a formless void and darkness.
When the Hebrew people stood in front of the Red Sea, seeing no way, God saw a way. When the people of God were only a remnant, a lifeless tree stump, dry bones, God saw life. When Jesus saw someone possessed by demons, he saw the possibility of liberation, of life! When looking at a person blind from birth, Jesus saw the possibility of healing. And for people who were unclean and had always been excluded from the temple, Jesus imagined belonging, restoration, reconciliation. Again and again, into the wastelands of oppression and injustice, Jesus spoke a word, and people were saved, healed, liberated, walking, seeing. Again and again, where others saw only impossibility, Jesus imagined light in the darkness. In all kinds of complex circumstances, Jesus imagined thriving human beings in right relationships with each other and their communities. He didn’t imagine them magically transported out of their circumstances. Rather, the words he spoke created new life rising up, powerful new possibilities for women and men and children to live abundant lives.
Jesus’ imagination was shaped by God, his heavenly Parent, the alive One who imagines light and life in the formless void and darkness. Jesus was formed by the creating One, the One who speaks light into existence, who speaks life into impossible places. This is the imagination that gave Jesus his life. It is this imagination that informed his encounters with people and systems. It is this imagination that took Jesus to the cross. This imagination was part of Jesus’ body and being—he breathed it and lived it. Filled with this imagination he gave himself to the cross knowing that even in that impossible place…where there was no way…the One whose breath is always hovering over the darkness was imagining and speaking a way. Jesus went to the cross sensing the wind of God blowing over the dark, impossible wasteland. He went to the cross knowing that there is no wasteland, no chaos, no void, that cannot be given life by Creator God.
In the resurrection of Jesus, once again we witness God imagining life where there was no life…we see new life rising up in impossible places. This same creating God continues to breathe life…into us and into the wastelands of our lives.
May we, who are not God,
But who are children of God,
May we hear God speaking into the formless void….
May we listen for God’s Word speaking possibility…here…now….
May we hear God’s Word speaking new life and new possibility into our lives…our individual lives…our collective life.
May we give our imaginations to be sparked and inspired by the eternally alive One.
May we open our imaginations to the Wind of God, to the One who is always imagining and speaking new worlds into existence. The future of our families…our neighborhoods…our country…our planet depends on it.
May we, who are not Jesus,
But who are sisters and brothers of Jesus,
May we, with imaginations shaped by resurrection,
May we join the work of God,
Speaking words of light into the formless void,
Words of healing and liberation and reconciliation into dark wastelands.
May we, inspired by God who is impossibly alive
Speak words and light up our world!
May 10, 2015
Austin Mennonite Church
Guest Speaker: Dr. James Puglisi, Associate Director of Campus Ministry, St. Edwards University, Austin, Texas
Wholeness and that first interfaith moment!
1 John 5:1-16; John 15:9-17; Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98
We are in the Easter season in reference to the liturgical calendar, that time between Jesus’ departure and Pentecost and the birth of the Church. The readings today reflect a community in the early period after Christ’s death, that is struggling to find itself, to know what it means to follow this person of Jesus they had come to love, admire, respect, and in many ways, sacrifice everything they had in the face of their friends and family. What seems so normative for us today perhaps, I imagined seemed very strange to the family and friends of those early followers. Those of us in the Catholic tradition like to think that Mary was absolutely accepting of her son, and yes, she loved him as no other mother could, but being human as she was, I can’t help but think there had to be a few nights where she and Joseph just wondered if their son was going to hold down a job. I can imagine the look on my dad’s face if I informed him I was the son of God. Would Christ be taken seriously today? That is a question for another day. But as I said, the Apostles are still trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ. They hear from Jesus directly in today’s Gospel. God loves us, chose us, and has sent us. We are called to love as God has loved. The love spoken of reminds me of what I hear, is the love that a mother has for their child (and a father, but that one will have to wait for June). It is not a discriminatory love, but a love that accepts their child as is when born, even if there are challenges. It is a love that does not fade despite the actions of their child, again, even with all the challenges that might arise AND that might move other types of relationships to “call it a day.” It is hard to imagine that God’s love for me is even greater than a mother’s unconditional love for her children. I know my siblings!
God’s love is not a discriminatory love, rather it is a love that seems to be expansive. The passage today from the Acts of the Apostles is one of my favorite when I think of the interfaith/ecumenical work I do. Baptizing Gentiles was one of the early inter-religious events of the early Church. Peter and the following were still trying to figure what it meant to be followers of Christ, when Christ was no longer in human form. I can assure you that while we Catholics feel we have a succession from Peter in the office of the Pope, from personal experience, we don’t have it figured out what it means to be Christian much more today than these early followers of Christ. But is it all that difficult?
As we look at the news daily, given places like Garland, TX, Baltimore, and East Austin for that matter along with so many other areas, it seems we as a society in the United States have taken the fairly straight forward command from God found in the Gospel which is: “To love one another” in the manner that God loves us, and it so often seems like we have tossed that idea. Often, the violence we see, particularly along lines of race and economic class, is the result of extreme frustrations by individuals and communities, living with conditions that marginalize and often brutalizes in that long, slow, progressive manner so difficult to quantify, yet so obvious. This path is chosen, often in the name of “tough love.” Violence is building a society that is quick to incarcerate. Violence is aiding the wealthy while ignoring the poor. Violence is extolling the virtues of austerity programs that deny assistance to those in poverty. Violence is denying educational opportunity. “Tough love”, while often called for and needed, is one of my least favorite phrases that I hear for justifying certain actions that seem to be less about love and more about control, preservation of status quo, exclusion, and making a point. This is a violence of its own, and is often wielded by those in power, and sometimes unbeknownst to them. And myself, being in a place of privilege as a white male Christian in the United States, I can’t truly say that I understand the frustrations that many feel justify such provocations that have taken form in protests in recent months.
Psalm 98, the lectionary Psalm for the day speaks of God judging the nations with righteousness and with equity. The great Catholic Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, equated righteousness with justice. He spoke of three types of justice. The first, communicative justice deals with the relationship between people. The second, distributive justice, speaks of society’s relationship with individuals, and legal justice, the relationship of individuals with society. Each seeks a restored and full relationship between individuals, between society and individuals, and individuals with society. Lacking in his description of justice is any sense of “retributive” justice, the form society most understands when speaking of justice. Rahner asserts that in the Christian form, justice is “inseparable from love, since more is required of the Christian.” Ours is a path of forgiveness and love.
I had the privilege this past week to attend iACT’s Hope Awards where we heard from Michael Morton, falsely convicted for killing his wife, served 25 years in jail, and face the reality of a son who was raised to believe his father had kill his mother. Yet, through the innocence project and DNA testing, he was found to be innocent and was set free. During the last 10 years of his imprisonment, through what can only be believe to be God’s intervention, he moved from thoughts of murder and revenge, to that of forgiveness and love for those who has wrongly convicted him. People like Morton and Nelson Mandela teach us much about the expansive love and forgiveness of God.
Despite stories like Morton, I find it interesting that the passage from 1 John states that God’s commands are not burdensome. I am not sure what planet the author of 1 John was living on. Yet, why is it so difficult to love? Why is it so difficult to love our neighbor, let alone those we might easily want to call enemy. Maybe it is because we do not get to choose whom we love? We are commanded to extend love, not to some, not to a particular kind or group, but to extend love without exclusion. One of my Muslim colleagues in our community explained the concept of neighbor in the Muslim tradition. The neighbor is not just the person living in the next house. Our neighbor is the people living in the next 100 houses. While we might be inclined to select who will be our neighbor, or who might NOT be our neighbor, God has chosen each of us to love and therefore we must love the same. Can we do this in our daily lives, and can our community extend love in such a manner?
We are called to bear fruit as the Gospel commands us. Producing good-looking fruit in the orchard is not a quick process, unless you are applying toxic chemicals. It is a slow process that requires the attention and in many ways, relationship. I think of all the types of fruit that we find today, much of it are hybrids that have brought together the best of two others forms of fruit. It is an expansive process. I think the Church is much like this. Just as Peter recognized that Christ was not just for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles, we are to be welcoming. Peter didn’t just baptize and leave, he stuck around and shared in the lives of these new followers.
Before I finish today, Psalm 98 from today’s lectionary reading is one of my favorites. We used to sing it in a round at camp, but I wouldn’t make you do that unless I had Miguel’s help. In it we heard of the the seas roaring, the hills singing and the floods clapping. I was just reading in Sojourner’s Magazine about the pillaging ofLatin America and other parts of the world due to unregulated mining practices. And Stacey and I have seen such damage in our beloved West Virginia. I am anxious for Pope’s Francis encyclical that is coming out later this year about the environment, a realm that the Church is often too quiet about. God’s creation goes beyond people and extend to all of creation, a living witness to God’s presence in our midst. We must extend God’s love and God’s inclusion, to all of creation for the hills, mountains and oceans are our neighbor as well.
May we accept others as Peter accepted those early Gentiles, into God’s loving presence.
Erica Lea shared the following paper with an adult Sunday school class at Austin Mennonite Church on March 2, 2014. Erica is a senior seminarian at Truett Seminary. The paper is titled, “Christian Ecofeminist Images, Language and Actions: A Conversation with Feminist Theologians.”
Terra Mater. Gaia. Spider Grandmother. Mother Earth. Mother Nature. From pagan goddess worship to Greek mythology to Native American spirituality to contemporary discourse on climate and ecology, nature or Earth is often depicted or discussed in feminine terms by using the title Mother and the feminine personal pronoun. Gender personifications of neither inherently male nor female matter reflect an underlying attitude about that matter. Ecofeminist theology desires to understand and discuss this connection between gender and ecology in order to make positive ecological and social changes in both gender justice and ecological responsibility.
This paper will begin broadly with discussion of Christian Feminist theology, then narrow by considering a relationship between Feminist liberation theology and Ecofeminist theology. Many religious traditions have Feminist and Ecofeminist theologies, but for the purposes of this paper all references to Feminist and Ecofeminist theologies will refer to a Christian perspective unless otherwise specified.
Justo González defines Feminist theology as a contextual theology that “reflects theologically while taking into account the experience of women- particularly, their experience of oppression in male-dominated societies and churches”. Sarah Coakley identifies “classic liberal feminist goals for women, such as ‘autonomy’, ‘freedom’, and ‘self-determination’”. Other goals include advocacy for women’s rights around the world, increased awareness of women’s experiences, and consciousness raising of socially imposed sexism and institutionally imposed sexism such as in the church, education, government and legal systems. Different subsets of Feminist theology have differing goals and approaches, but on the whole, Feminist theology embraces many goals among other explicitly religious and spiritual goals such as consciousness raising of religiously imposed sexism, inclusion of women at any level of religious leadership, and feminine conceptions of God. Feminist theology and Feminism as a broader social movement both have origins among upper middle class white American women. In response, there are movements within Feminism to be more inclusive of women outside of this specific, but influential, subset such as Black women in Womanist theology and gay women in Queer Liberation Theology. Feminist theology is more than a social or religious desire for equality, but equality in “blessedness before God”.
There is intellectual diversity within Feminist theology. For example, Mary Daly at one point was influenced by Paul Tillich, but she became increasingly radical over her lifetime. Daly eventually disassociated with orthodox Christianity, and instead embraced goddess worship, and concluded that Christianity is inherently patriarchal and cannot be redeemed. As a result of high profile coverage and attention, Daly’s deliberately divisive approach furthered a hostile and uncooperative stereotype that represents outlier radicals in Feminist theology as normative.
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza shares some similar goals as Daly, but takes a more moderate approach. Fiorenza’s areas of interest include class issues and social justice for all, especially women. As is typical of Feminist theologians and scholars, Fiorenza is critical of hierarchical systems. She pushed the Catholic Church, especially during the time of the Second Vatican Councils, to include women in “the full range of ecclesiastical offices” , which is in harmony with Feminism’s goal of women’s self-determination. Fiorenza’s less hostile approach than Daly and faithfulness to Catholic Christianity comes from her belief that “Christian tradition is capable of feminist reform and readjustment” , and as a result she has had greater impact by working for change within Christianity by staying in Christianity.
Sallie McFague also contributes to Christian Feminist theology by rehabilitating gender constructions and metaphors of God. Language used to understand God gives insight into one’s social understanding of the metaphor such as speaking of God as Mother. The role and expectations of a mother vary between social contexts. This raises the question, when the metaphor of God as Mother is used, then which understanding and context of mothering is implied? McFague’s conception of God as Mother should not be interpreted as a lightweight, as Coakley writes, “sentimental affair… [because] God is also ‘judge’, the one who ‘establishes justice’ and promotes an ethic of ‘care’”. Anyone that has experienced discipline from a mother recognizes the power behind the concept of God as Mother. Mothers show tremendous strength, endurance, and dedication birthing and rearing their children. This metaphor works with God’s relationship with The Church, and Christians on an individual level.
While it may be effective and thought-provoking to conceive of God in gender neutral terms such as Parent rather than Father or Mother, gender contributes to deeper personal connection between people and The Divine, and is therefore necessary. McFague desires to add metaphors of God rather than replacing masculine metaphors with feminine ones. Rather than moving solely to gender neutral metaphors and terminology, greater inclusion of a variety of honoring terms contributes to correcting centuries of narrow conceptions of God. However, a greater faith and trust that God transcends all people groups must be considered, otherwise God becomes a Divine Congress where everyone must be represented in order to operate.
The traditional Christian text, The Cloud of Unknowing, warns against allowing images of God to become God- “Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love, and must always be overcome… images of something which however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God.” There must be a careful balance between conceptualizing God in order to relate to God more intimately and wholly compared to creating a god based on what one desires God to be. McFague’s metaphors of God are also used in her well-known work on Ecofeminist theology.
McFague argues that people distance themselves from the Earth by defining themselves by the Greatest Commandments- loving God and loving neighbor, which removes oneself from “relationship to the earth, its creatures, and its care”. Instead, McFague proposes a greater sense of interconnectedness between God, people, and Creation. For McFague, a deeper issue with human relationship to Creation is a sense of belonging- “it is the heart of the matter because it is the case- we do belong… we are at home in this world because we were made for it”. Such a claim has eschatological implications. If Creation is considered quite separate from the spiritual, and the world is extraordinarily temporary such as common in rapture rescue theology, then why put forth effort to maintain and preserve Creation? An overarching goal of Ecofeminist theology is to “educate consumers, environmental organizations, and policymakers about the complex web of interrelationships between all living organisms and their environment.”
Common to Feminist theory, McFague essentially rejects dualistic approaches of viewing the world, such as body and spirit, or gender binary, in order to affirm the interconnectedness of lives and reject simplistic divisions. Perhaps if God was more widely understood as neither feminine nor masculine, but completely whole and encompassing all gender, then there would be less abuse of Creation as personified in the feminine, less goddess worship [whether directly or indirectly] as the thirst for inclusion of a feminine identity of God would be fulfilled, and a more balanced attitude of the relationships and connections between God, people, and all of Creation.
Justo González writes, “most feminist theologians are seeking the liberation, not only of women, but of all oppressed people-and, in a sense, also of their oppressors”. True Christian Feminists and Ecofeminists are concerned about men’s relationships and patriarchal social systems’ relationships with Creation, as well. Ecofeminist theologians argue that Creation is oppressed and is in need of responsible liberation. Ecofeminist theology critiques a similar issue also seen in missiology- the dominance of Eurocentric male superimposition of its own ways of understanding and applying Christianity onto other cultures. In the context of Christian Ecofeminist theology, Creation is not best understood by one group, but everyone who experiences it.
If Earth is seen as a provider, then it is reasonable for it to be considered in masculine terms such as Father Earth because provision is typically understood as a masculine trait. With times of drought and flood, for example, the Earth does not provide consistently and therefore is unreliable and unpredictable as femininity is often similarly understood. However, the relationship between femininity stereotyped as unpredictable is more strongly engrained than the Earth as provider, such as with natural disasters. This attitude of women’s unpredictability and deceitfulness is reflected in ancient folk stories and mythology such as Hera and Zeus in Greek mythology, Cyoeraeth in Welsh mythology, and Tlazolteotl in Aztec mythology, and that attitude internalizes through storytelling, and contributes to sexist perceptions of gender and Creation.
Elizabeth Johnson’s work affirms the value of Creation, and connects attitudes about Creation with attitudes about God, Creator- “For anyone who believes in a God who creates and sustains the world and who even pronounces the world as ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31), wasting the world is an ethical, religious, and theological issue of critical importance”. Johnson, like McFague, also rejects dualism, but takes more explicit opposition to hierarchical dualism. She argues that spirit is often identified as masculine while matter is often identified as feminine. “The ruling man’s hierarchy over women and slaves extends also to nature, most often symbolized as female”. Even in well-intended spiritually informed Christian conversations, created matter is often discussed as significantly lower in value and desirability than spirit. Thus, creating a hierarchical dualism as if spirit and matter oppose each other.
This feminine perception and personification of Creation continues to be problematic with a divide between science and nature- “the birth of modern science depends on the move to make nature not a great teacher but man’s servant, and man not nature’s child but her master, in accord with patriarchal rule”. Patriarchy and an industrial military complex, whether implicitly or explicitly, promote masculine conquering of the feminine or perceived weaker other, as is common in complimentarian and/or hierarchical understandings of the world and Christianity. This carries over to Creation when a given society is patriarchal, because the society will necessarily respond to Creation as yet another something to be conquered and exploited.
Clearly communicating a perspective on ecological and theological issues is practically helpful enough, but Johnson moves towards suggesting alternatives to the current reality of hierarchical dualism and exploitation of Creation. She identifies “social injustice and ecological degradation as inextricably fused in theory and practice”, and worthy of Christian consideration and work to change. Johnson all suggests remembering the one Creator Spirit that creates all, so that the equality of all will be remembered more than differences that lead to inequality.
Concerns & Conclusions
What do we do now? Rather than rejecting feminine Earth terminology, including masculine and feminine discourse when considering Creation will contribute to an improved sense of balance for a Christian ecological perspective. However, changed vocabulary can only go so far. Rosemary Radford Ruether writes, “there is a need to take account of the economic and social structures that serve to stabilize patterns of oppression” . Accepting and advocating for gender equality in every possible way for both women and men, especially women and other globally marginalized groups, will improve ecological conditions as Ecofeminist theology connects exploitation of women and the oppressed with exploitation of Creation.
Some Feminist and Ecofeminist theological theories are far enough removed from mainstream conceptions of Christian orthodoxy that they are disregarded as too radical or peculiar outliers, and therefore easily ignored. Feminist theology and Ecofeminist theology are not simply fresh and challenging ways to consider God and theology, but are attempts to overhaul the Christian establishment’s patriarchally infused orthodoxy. However, the overhaul must still be within the limits of Bible and Tradition supported conceptualizations and understandings of Christianity in so far as social justice, equality among the sexes, and stewardship of all Creation is upheld. Feminist theologians could do a better job of building bridges between mainstream Christianity and their ideas. Ruether, for example, “tries to keep different aspects of the Christian story intact, even while reinterpreting them in a radical way”. Christian Ecofeminist theology and Christian Feminist theology in general must be clearly andrecognizably Christian.
There are a few worrisome directions that Ecofeminist theology can go. Overemphasizing the connection between discussion and treatment of women with Creation can further contribute to the common, frequently implied, belief that women are closer to nature than men. Pairing social justice (especially for women) through Feminist awareness and ecological responsibility so tightly may further marginalize women outside of the historical heavy hitters of Feminism- upper middle class white American women by adding yet another sphere- ecology- to the list of Feminist causes.
From a deeply spiritual and orthodox concern, Ecofeminist theology and Christian discussions of ecological issues must carefully balance overcorrecting neglect of Creation by flirting with pantheism, panentheism, and deification of Creation. Abalanced view of Ecofeminist theology rejects pantheism and panentheism. In an effort to be responsible stewards of Creation and have passionate conversations, ecologically minded Christians, Ecofeminist or otherwise, may be tempted to overstate their position and argument by too closely connecting God with Creation. God is not dependent on Creation, but decides to interact and participate in it (such as The Christ Event) as an expression of love. “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.”
 González, Justo L. Essential Theological Terms. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 63
 Coakley, Sarah. “Feminist Theology.” Edited by Francis S. Fiorenza. In Modern Christian Thought, edited by James C. Livingston, 417-41. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000., 423
 Ibid., 438
 Ibid., 419-23
 Ibid., 424
 Ibid., 425
 Ibid., 423-8
 Ibid., 432
 Kirvan, John, ed. Where Only Love Can Go: The Cloud of Unknowing. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2009, 35
 McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993, 103
 Ibid., 111
 Isherwood, Lisa, and Dorothea McEwan, eds. An A to Z of Feminist Theology. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996., 45
 González, Justo L. Essential Theological Terms, 63
 Johnson, Elizabeth A. Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit. New York: Paulist Press, 1993, 2
 Ibid., 15
 Johnson, Elizabeth A. Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit., 65
 Parsons, Susan F. The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 195
 Ibid., 196
 Blue Letter Bible. “Book of Psalms 150 – (NIV – New International Version).” Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2012. < http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Psa&c=150&t=NIV >
Sermon by Suella Gerber presented at Austin Mennonite Church on February 16, 2014:
The vulnerability and strength of Mary (Thus sermon was first preached at Fellowship of Hope as part of the “Do you see this woman?” series. It was also preached at Austin MennoniteChurch on February 16, 2014.)
When I was in Senegal some years ago, we lived with Therese; she was Catholic. A few months before our arrival, one of her sons had been killed in a traffic accident. Her grief, as you can imagine, was still raw. As we learned to know each other, in the course of time she showed me her bedroom and the altar where she prayed…to the Virgin. It was clear that praying to and with Mary was what was sustaining her in her pain. Cutting flowers from her garden each day and taking them to the altar was not only evidence of her devotion and adoration but also necessary for comfort to ease her pain.
A few months later Therese invited me to join her on a pilgrimage during Holy Week. Of course I wanted to go. We went with a group of retired persons; our destination was a place where the Virgin had made an appearance, a place that had since become a destination for hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Toward the end of the day we finally got to the site where Mary had been seen. There were altars all around, within the rocks of the landscape, semi-private spaces with mounds of wax. Clearly many prayers had been prayed here. The holiness of the place was palpable. Without waiting, Therese went to an altar, knelt and began to pray. I wanted to do the same…and did. But I remember an internal hesitance, “What will I pray? I don’t believe in praying to Mary. Is it wrong for me to kneel here? Should I confess to someone?!” But as I knelt, I began to experience Mother…the femininity and maternity of God. I was profoundly comforted…by Mary…by the familiarity of another woman. And then I understood Therese’s devotion—if anyone could understand her grief…the grief of a son’s death…Mary could. Of course Therese turned to Mary.
I envied Therese that relationship. And for the first time, I began to see and name the loss of the feminine, the female, in my Protestant, Anabaptist faith tradition. In a male-dominated world—our churches and theologies and orthodoxies have been formed and defined by men, and by the masculine. But we are beginning to see women. We are beginning to hear women. As we see women—as we begin to value the feminine, the female, the maternal—as we see women, we also see Mary…as her own person. Seeing Mary, we are able to see ourselves with new eyes—women and men.
In the Anabaptist faith tradition Mary has essentially been invisible. It seems we only pay attention to her because she gave birth to Jesus. Beyond that, she’s a passive, docile, and insignificant character in the Gospel story. We don’t see her…not really. We haven’t noticed her feminine presence, teaching and guiding her son. In the group of disciples and followers of Jesus, we haven’t seen this woman, this woman who mothered Jesus. And when Jesus was arrested and on the cross, we see the disciples…we see and hear Peter denying Jesus…we see other disciples running away, abandoning their teacher…but do we see this Mary? Do we see the company of women staying with Jesus every painful step of the way?
For many, Mary—as woman, mother, human being—is virtually unseen. Rather, her virginity is what matters: because if she were not a virgin, she would not be pure, and we can’t have Jesus given life in the body of a woman who has been defiled! So rather than seeing Mary, seeing the woman who gave birth to the Word of God, to the Christ Child, rather than seeing her, we argue about whether or not this invisible woman was a virgin. (We still argue about the wombs of invisible women today.) The one side argues that Mary was literally and historically a virgin. The other side argues just as passionately that virginity and pregnancy are biologically impossible. For the one side, Mary’s virginity is the foundation of faith…remove it and Christianity crumbles. For the other side, the claim itself undermines Christianity. Caught in this argument, we care more about whether or not she had sex than about who she is and how it is that God chose Mary to bring the Son of the Most High into the world. And Mary remains unseen, disembodied…reduced to a womb…reduced to sex.
When our focus is sex and morality, we lose sight of God. And when our eyes have lost their focus, we surely can’t see God at work in Mary’s life…or in our own lives. What does it mean that God’s son was born of a woman? Who is she? Unless we can let go of our preoccupation with literalism, including sex outside-of-marriage and biology, we won’t see Mary. We won’t see her profound presence in the Gospel story. Mary’s story is Good News…and in her story we find and tell our own stories, men and women. If we don’t see her…the woman, the mother…can we see Jesus? If we don’t hear Mary, can we hear the Good News of Jesus?
So what happens if we look at Mary? What happens if we see Mary—the young woman, the daughter, the fiancée—if we see the human being in this story? In the well-known account of the annunciation, before Mary sings the Magnificat, Luke gives some very specific details—details that matter, details that are the story. The first detail is that God sends Gabriel. The second, that God sends Gabriel to Nazareth. Once in Nazareth, he’s going to a virgin, the third detail…a virgin, promised in marriage to a descendent of King David. And finally, we hear that the virgin’s name is Mary. Do we see her?
These very specific details are more than factual or accurate reporting of a historical event. These details are telling a bigger story, a story not bound by history. From the start, from the first detail, we hear and understand that this is a story about God, about God at work in the lives of human beings. This is a story about God, the Creator. There isn’t anything spectacular here…no shock or awe. In fact, it’s the opposite. God sent Gabriel to Nazareth, a place of no significance, not big enough or important enough for anyone to know about or care about, a place that didn’t attract the attention of political or religious leaders. God was…God is at work…outside the systems and institutions of men. This is the first time Nazareth is mentioned in Scripture, the first time we hear about God at work in Nazareth. God is about to do a new thing.
In this off the radar…off the grid…place, God sends Gabriel to visit an unmarried woman, or, a virgin. Now…I doubt that Luke or his listeners cared much about whether or not Mary has had sex…or what was biologically possible or impossible. The reason Mary’s virginity is important…the reason it matters that Mary is not married is because it means she does not belong to a man. But more than that—Mary’s virginity means she has not given herself to man-made social and political structures. That Mary is a virgin means she has not given herself to the domination of human systems of status and power and authority. It means that she is not controlled by the values and expectations and stereotypes of those around her. No, it is the Creator who has entered her, who is breathing new life into her.
This story that is beginning does not begin with Mary, does not begin with Joseph, it begins with God. Mary belongs to the kindom of God, not the kingdom of men. Because Mary is a virgin, no man—and no man-made institutions—can lay their claims on this child. This virgin birth…God creating with a word…bypasses and subverts all institutions of domination and oppression.
When Mary received the message she was confused and distressed. Can we see her? Gabriel saw her…and her fear. In the face of God at work in our lives, before we understand what kind of message we are being given, before we know how to understand what is happening, we too are bewildered, stunned. When God begins to create something new in our lives, we are as perplexed as Mary was. No matter how much we may complain about life as we know it, when God comes to us with an invitation, it is surprising how often our fear keeps us holding on to the old…even if we are burdened by it….even if we are bound…too often we give in to our fear and hold on. But not Mary. After the initial storm had passed, she heard God whispering, “Don’t be afraid.”
And Mary said, Yes! She opened herself…gave herself. God saw the grace in Mary’s very being…grace that gave her the capacity to receive this strange message, even if she did not understand it…grace that made her ready and receptive to God creating new life in her, even when she was afraid. Such grace is nurtured by ready vulnerability and profound strength.
Receptivity and vulnerability are feminine characteristics. Unfortunately they are often mistaken for passivity and weakness. And too many of us—men and women—have been taught to seek strength and power…and shun vulnerability. Recently, in a group I was part of, we talked about what is expected of men and what is expected of women. The first thing each of the men said is that they live with the expectation that they should be strong…that they should not be vulnerable or weak, or appear to be vulnerable or weak. This belief is subtle…real…and oppressive…for men and for women. This kind of oppositional thinking keeps us from seeing the strength of vulnerability.
When we see Mary, really see her, we begin to understand the depths of her strength and courage. Her Yes! to God was a choice, choosing to live in the vulnerable position of putting God at the center of her life. Her Yes! put her in the uncomfortable and unrespectable position of being “owned” by God rather and by her husband. Her Yes! bound her to the Word of God growing within her…rather than binding herself to relationships and systems and expectations that would diminish her. Mary’s Yes! was a deep recognition that she—a woman, an unmarried woman—she too was created in God’s image, a beloved daughter of God—no matter what anyone around her said.
When we see Mary—the woman, the mother, our sister—we hear in the words of her song a deep wisdom and understanding of who God is and what it means to be human. And we know the strength and vulnerability that will be required of Mary. Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God mySavior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Because of the new life the Spirit of God breathed in her, Mary knew…and we can know…that God comes to the lowly, is present in the lowliness. Her song is a fierce claim, singing God’s praise, knowing that she will not be defined by her social status or the values of the culture around her. Rather, her status and identity—our status and identity—are always, first of all, being given by God. We are God’s chosen, God’s beloved. Who we are begins with God, with who God is.
When we see Mary, we see her present throughout the Gospel. And we begin to see that her story is our story. Mary’s story isn’t only a story about what it means to be a woman, it is a story about what it means to be human. Mary’s story magnifies the feminine, the mother, the women…radical in her time…radical in our time. Her story claims, for all women and men, true strength that we are capable of, men and women alike. Mary’s story leaves no doubt that women have a place in the kindom of God, in bringing heaven to earth.
If we don’t see Mary, the woman, the mother…if we don’t see or appreciate her femininity and maternity, her openness and vulnerability and receptivity…if we don’t see this woman, what will Jesus look like? The Good News is that we are all, women and men alike, called to give birth to the Word of God. Bringing God’s Word to life in our bodies and beings is an act of love, initiated by God who is love, God who is lover. Mary, the woman, understood that saying Yes! was giving herself to God…to God’s action, to God’s love in her life. Mary, the virgin, understood the distinctions between human and divine regeneration. Regeneration with God is about love…giving birth to Love. And she said Yes! May we also say Yes!
Sermon by Suella Gerber presented at Austin Mennonite Church on February 9, 2014:
Women of Light: Miriam, Deborah, and Jael (Thus sermon was first preached at Fellowship of Hope as part of the “Do you see this woman?” series. It was also preached at AustinMennoniteChurch on February 9, 2014.)
Exodus 15:19-21, Judges 4:1-24
This trio—Miriam, Deborah, and Jael—is a formidable trio! We can see Miriam leading worship…boldly and enthusiastically leading her people in song and dance, praising the Holy One who was with them in the terrifying crossing of the Red Sea. We can see Deborah, serene and sure in her leadership. And we can see Jael, the Gentile woman, whose compassion and courage led her to take action against when confronted with Sisera. We see these women!
We welcome and celebrate the story of Miriam…but my guess is that most of us are cringe hearing the story of Deborah, Barak, Sisera, and Jael. Perhaps that’s why this story is seldom told or talked about from the pulpit. The violence catches us. I wonder if seems more startling and graphic in this story because it is initiated by women. Or perhaps it’s because these women are such powerful leaders. Deborah is calm and assured, strong and confident. And Jael mirrors the same calm and assurance. Perhaps it’s her calm presence as she kills Sisera that disturbs us. We may expect that from a man…but from a woman? In fact, in the previous chapter is the story of Ehud, who plans and carries out the murder of King Eglon. (Eglon was the bad guy.) I confess, I find Jael’s violence more disturbing and startling than Ehud’s. The killing is offensive, whether at the hands of a man or woman. But…perhaps our aversion to a woman doing this violence keeps us from seeing and hearing the story. When the violence is the only thing we see or hear…we miss what else is happening… we can’t see or hear the women and men in the story. And we certainly can’t see God at work. So…I invite us to set aside the violence…at least for now…so that we can see Deborah…and Jael.
While the violence likely turns us away from this story, perhaps another part of our discomfort is Deborah herself and the role she has—a judge in Israel. She is the only woman in the Bible to hold this position. And the position, of course, includes being commander-in-chief of the army. Even here in the United States we haven’t been ready to have a woman in such a leadership role! And I will guest that most of us, if we’re honest, as we hear this story of Deborah…as we see her acting out of her place of leadership…and as we watch Barak take his orders from her, we think a less of him. We wonder what kind of a man he is. Perhaps that’s why we’re uncomfortable with women as commanders-in-chief…because we continue to live with a stereotype that says men who accept women’s leadership are not real men. And conversely, that women aren’t suited for leadership roles, at least not ones that include giving direct orders to men. This ancient story disturbs deeply held gender stereotypes.
Deborah was also a prophet. She…and Miriam…are two of only a handful of prophets who were women. Prophets speak on behalf of God…speak God’s word to the people…a Word that people are often reluctant to hear. The messages from God that Deborah delivers don’t sound like those of her male counterparts. But that she was a prophet there is no doubt—her name, in Hebrew, means word, speak, Word of God. Her name, her identity…who she was…was aligned with God’s Word.
The Text also tells us that Deborah is the wife of Lappidoth. At least that’s what most of our translations say. But it could equally be translated that Deborah is a woman of fire, or woman of Light! Lappid in Hebrew means flaming torch or lightening. This same lappid was present when God made the covenant with Abraham and Sarah. And a lappid was present at the top of Mt.Sinai when God spoke the 10 Commandments to Moses. In Isaiah 62 we hear that the salvation of Israel is “like a lappid…like a burning torch.”
Perhaps Deborah was married, and perhaps her husband’s name was Lappidoth, but the storyteller here is giving us more important and more significant information about Deborah than her marital status. The storyteller wants us to know something about the kind of woman she was: a woman in God’s image. She carried within her the Light of God. The fire of her being was God…she represented God’s Word to her people as she sat under the palm of Deborah. She spoke God’s Word…she embodied God’s Word. And if we have any lingering doubt about God’s presence within Deborah, we hear in v 4, “the Israelites came up to her.” She is the Light of God shining like a beacon for those she serves. Her passion for God’s word burning brightly, the Hebrew people were drawn to her, guided by the Light of God in her presence and in her being. Her judgments on their behalf carried a wisdom that reflected the wisdom of God.
We begin to see why Deborah was chosen for leadership. Her leadership…her fire…her allegiance to God…to speaking and living God’s Word…made her a prophet and judge. The opening chapters of Judges describe the struggle the Hebrew people were having. They kept forgetting their covenant with the Holy One of Israel. Instead, they followed the gods of their neighbors. They did what they wanted to do—and they wanted what they wanted—to be like everyone else, to have what everyone else had, and to worship the gods everyone else did. When God raised up judges to lead the people, to save them and return them to God’s way of being and living, they did so for awhile. But again and again, they forgot. They got pulled in by what they could see around them. And they could not see YHWH…nor could they make images of God. Unlike other gods who resided in temples and were given form in idols, YHWH God resided in and among the people…in a cloud…in fire. I AM was made visible in their being, in their living, in their relationships…with each other and other peoples.
It’s easy to understand how they…how we…forget God. We too get pulled by images around us…by power and possessions…by our fears. But not Deborah or Barak. (Barak, btw, means lightening. They are quite the duo of Light!) They aren’t distracted. It doesn’t matter to Deborah that she’s a woman in a man’s role—her identity is given by YHWH. And Barak doesn’t care that he’s submissive to the leadership of a woman. He isn’t diminished—his identity is given by God. It is the Light of God that is living their lives. They may see what other people are doing, they may be tempted to give in to the opinions of the cultures around them, but they act and live from their relationship with the Word of God. God who is Light is their life.
And the people of Israel see them…see their Light and life…and are drawn to them. We are drawn to the Light of God…whether it resides in a woman or man…roles don’t matter. What matters is that we recognize God’s Word being lived, being embodied. Seeing the Light of God burning in Deborah and Barak reminded them…reminds us…that we too give residence to the Holy One.
In this story of Deborah and Barak, we see and remember that God is indifferent to gender and role expectations. God is Light. God is Love. That’s what matters. And God-who-is-Love knows that it is in living aligned with God’s Word that we experience true salvation, our only wholeness. We may pursue what we see in the world around us, thinking then we’ll be happy…satisfied. But our seeing is distorted. We see gender and stereotypes. We see separation in race and ethnicity. We see the judgments of religion and morality. But Creator God sees beloved human beings…human beings created in the image of Love and Light. God wasn’t…and isn’t…the least bit concerned that Deborah is a woman and a judge. God isn’t concerned about the artificial differences we have created among ourselves. And God is concerned about upsetting systems and norms. This story reminds us that God, time and again, upsets our expectations by seeing the vulnerable, the powerless…by taking residence in the least, the last. God saw Deborah—saw that Deborah chose Light and Love…chose to give residence to God’s Word.
This story also reminds us that God is not bound by ethnicity or religion. God’s love and Light aren’t bound by our political or geographical boundaries. Jael, a Gentile woman, lived by the Light of God’s Word. She saw the terror Sisera was inflicting and it didn’t matter to her that Sisera was at battle with the Israelites. She acted to make right what was wrong. She acted on behalf of the other, without hesitation, without fear. That kind of confidence, that ability to act, came from her identity as a child of Light. God’s residence is not limited by national borders or by membership in the Christian faith. The Light of God shines and finds a home in each person who chooses to given residence to I AM.
Finally, we see the Light of God burning brightly in Miriam…Miriam, who as a girl watched her mother build the ark that would save her baby brother. She then watched Moses grow up in the palace of Pharaoh…Pharaoh, the oppressor, the enemy. And when Moses was in the wilderness being confronted by YHWH, while he was in the presence of I AM at the burning bush, Miriam was at home, in slavery. And yet…we have a sense that Miriam, raised by a mother who answered to God rather than to Pharaoh…Miriam too…even in slavery…gave residence to the Light of God in her. She didn’t give in to the bitterness and oppression as one would expect in the face of life’s hardships. Instead, after a day of work, she and other women gathered to sing and dance, praising the Holy One who was their life and Light. In response to the domination, the sound of their tambourines rang out in the night, declaring that they could not…they would not be bound…that even here…even in these circumstances…YHWH was their deliverer, their savior. 
We know that Miriam sang while enslaved in Egypt. Her tambourine was as much a part of her as her voice. When she packed her limited possessions to take into the wilderness, there was no doubt that she would take her tambourine. God’s Light lived and burned brightly in her. And we see her, right there beside her brother Moses, the first to step into the waters of the Red Sea. Her faith was in God—in life…in death…in any and all circumstances. Because she knew herself as a beloved daughter of the Holy One, she had faith to step into the water. And when the waters parted…well, we can only imagine response. The sound of her tambourine surely sang as they fled through the walls of water!
This trio of women…powerful women of faith…women who gave residence to the Word of God in their lives…these women are Light for us to see. In Deborah, Jael, and Miriam we see the Light of God, carried in their bodies, shining in their beings. Their circumstances couldn’t diminish the Light. Social and religious systems and stereotypes couldn’t diminish the Light. And their ethnic and cultural differences could not dim the Light of God. They saw God. And God saw them…I AM resided in them.
These women invite us…they are leading us to be women and men of fire, our torches burning with the Light of God. The Light of God will always triumph gloriously. No darkness will overcome the Light and Love of God. God is fighting our battles, at all times…fighting with Love and Light. The Holy One is our strength and salvation…throwing our fears and our doubts into the sea. No matter what armies are chasing us, YHWH is shining for us, inviting us to be children of Light. Inviting us to give residence to the Word of God in our lives, in our relationships with each other…in our bodies…with all bodies.
Presented by Heidi Ratzlaff
at Austin Mennonite Church
on January 26, 2014
I will share two poems.
I like to think of the first poem as an old Testament reading and the
second poem as a New Testament Reading.
Both are original, only in the sense that I composed them.
Both contain content likely controversial, but no references are
intended to offend individuals. They are just expressions of anger or
strongly held hopes. If you cannot accept them as a search for an
adult faith, then please try to excuse them as poetry, as art.
And no actual men were harmed in the writing of these poems.
The first is from some 7 years ago now
and the second…
intending epic poetry to write,
it manifest in pentameter rhyme!
“I, EVE” A Palindrome Poem
Long, long ago…
in a world not yet old…
and long, long ahead…
in a world not yet read,
there am I.
I stand in a road,
where my footsteps, they grow cold,
as they dissolve into the mist,
of ages going by.
And my head turns to another,
spectrum of unknown,
where I am bound to discover,
how by the grace of fate I go, and go I.
Each and every generation,
of killer mental men,
generates the notion
God was killed by them.
Women fill the sacred spaces,
and the spirit she fills them.
If Goddess ever died,
it is betrayed in their faces,
that she rises up again in them.
Though I go where I’m told,
and I tell where I have been,
no one knows why I’ve gone,
or when I will come again.
If you ask what I know,
I’ll ask what you want.
If you tell what you seek,
you will know where to go.
In a world not yet old…
long, long ago…
and in a world not yet read…
long, long ahead…
there am I.
I am Eve.
The second poem…
“…she would, she wouldn’t… A Poetic Exploration of Personal
Christian Identities in Female Voices”
In pondering identities in Christ,
she quoted a philosopher admir’d:
That Jesus called us each to live it out—
our personal encounter with the Christ
according to the intellectual
and spiritual impact, of this lived
encounter on each individual.
Although she wanted most to be inspir’d,
the grav’ty of it really made her tir’d.
She wondered was it just too much to ask,
to find a Christ with whom she’d best relate?
Yes, Jesus had already been washed white,
but could she find one female, or one gay?
a female Christ, a Magdalene, okay?
“Why do you like the Magdalene so much?”
her daughter’s voice, it nimbly questioned her.
“She’s practic’ly sole female in the book,”
she said, just wond’ring where this all would lead.
“But God is female, so there’s always that.”
Well, bless her heart, her teachings had been heard.
This same small voice that earlier had asked:
“um, Mother, am I black or white?” She then
decided medium was surely best.
This same small mind which knew in purest heart
that switching gender daily was alright,
so also knew that love was love was love.
Indeed, her Magdalene conflated all
the things she wanted in a female lead.
She was the valiant Princess Leia raised
above morass of men expendable.
Her Magdalene was no one’s follower.
Her nurture of his flame inspired the fire.
She was perhaps the one who formed his faith.
Like Sheba guiding Solomon in love,
it was her lips he kissed with man’s desire.
Would Magdalene have claimed she followed Christ?
She would? She wouldn’t? so identify?
Her news of good was greater than a man:
experienced a Logos far divine.
Who was the conduit? Who’s light was shined?
The Logos is in Greek, yes, gendered male,
but Wisdom says this flaw is by design.
One cannot live by bread and words alone,
it’s female love these words exemplify.
She plagiarised a voice she’d heard, and said:
One strives to do the epic, worth the time.
And, no, time isn’t money. Time is Time.
Make plans, form bonds, let every thing fulfil
our duty to our neighbours, Earth and kids.
Embracing this she joined a cause still young:
A Movement Matriarchal, Mennonite.
She too believed the best solution to
the problems in the church, (well in the world)
of sexism and sexual abuse,
was to remove the men from leadership,
replacing them with women, every post.
She lacked humility, no doubt, in that
she had no need of seminary, no:
She was not born a man! She longed to be
upon the edge of possibility.
Would she herself too claim she followed Christ?
Succumb the shelter of a packaged One,
a God confined within a body male?
She would, so deeply, that she would it not.
Thank you for granting me this opportunity to speak. I know that
anyone’s first sermon can also be their last.
Sermon by Stacey Vlasits at Austin Mennonite Church on September 29, 2013
Readings: Timothy and Luke were read during the service. I read Amos and the Psalm in the places indicated.
There’s an awful lot in the Bible about the rich and the poor. The two stories we have already read this morning from Timothy and from Luke are pretty typical examples. In Timothy the rich are cautioned about haughtiness and reminded that their riches will pass away. In Luke, Jesus goes way beyond this with a cautionary tale to end all cautionary tales. The consequences for the rich man of ignoring the plight of the poor seem very, very dire indeed.
Today’s lectionary texts (from which those two are drawn) also include two from the Old Testament and both of those also address the rich and/or the poor. Amos chapter 6 tells us that the rich and comfortable in Zion will be the first of the people of Israel to go into exile. (Read selections from Amos)
The Psalm for this morning, Psalm 146, describes God’s deep concern for and faithfulness to the poor (read Psalm 146).
Taken as a group and taken at a level pretty close to the surface, these verses make it pretty clear that the poor have a special place in God’s heart. The poor will be lifted up. In scripture, stories about the poor come to us in one of two general contexts: stories which admonish the rich for not caring for the poor and stories which express God’s care, concern and promises to the poor. In scripture, stories about the rich often come to us in one of two contexts as well: stories which admonish them for not caring for the poor and stories in which they are cautioned against placing their trust in their riches above their trust in the Lord God.
So, wealth and poverty are very important topics in all parts of the Bible. The Psalms reference them, the Torah is full of them, the prophets speak about them constantly, the wisdom literature focuses on them often and the gospels and the epistles are just plain chock-a-block…. If you just play around with word counts (which I don’t really encourage you to do, but in a superficial way, it helps make a little point here), there’s just a ton of references to the poor in the Bible. And references to the rich aren’t far behind. In fact, those two are two of the most mentioned classes of people in the Bible… right after prostitutes but well ahead of tax collectors.
But, you know what group you pretty much never hear about in the Bible? Like, nowhere? The middle class. Which is weird, right? Shouldn’t there be a lot about the middle class as well since they make up the majority of the population? I mean here in the 21st century in America, the vast majority of us call ourselves some flavor of middle class. And this is especially noteworthy because there is a lot of pressure in our world to not identify with either wealth or poverty. And one way that manifests itself is that when asked, American’s don’t identify as poor and they don’t identify as rich.
But, as Christians, we are called to see the world differently than the culture around us sees it. And this is not just because it’s cool to be different (although, honestly, it is pretty cool to be different, n’est pas?). In this case, I’m concerned that the cultural pressure not to identify as rich or poor damages our ability to see ourselves as God sees us and when we do that we can miss out on some very important parts of the Good News. I want to challenge you to listen again to the texts in Luke and Timothy and to see yourselves there in the places of the rich and the poor.
Let’s look again at the story in Luke. A very poor man named Lazarus who has been sprawled in pain and hunger outside the gates of a very rich man, dies. Who knows what happens to his body, but the rest of him is carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham (that’s how this scripture is translated in the King James version) where he is provided with much comfort. The rich man dies, too. They bury *his* body–so we know where that is anyway–but the important parts of him are transported to Hades to experience some very intense torment. Commentators on this passage never fail to connect the rich man’s inattention to the suffering of Lazarus’ body in life to the rich man’s failure to receive comfort for the rest of himself in death. So, part of this story–an important part–is a reiteration of the Old Testament admonition to take care of the poor, to safeguard those who are suffering. The rich in life must attend to the suffering of the poor in life.
But there are also some key points here for the poor: First: God loves you. God loves the poor. God does not despise you for being poor. God is not irritated with you for your failures. You are not inconvenient or a burden to God. You don’t make God feel guilty when he passes you. God is not tired of seeing you fail to rise up to the middle class even though he keeps dropping a quarter in your dish every day on his way to work. God loves the poor. God invites the poor to Abraham’s bosom. When they die, he permits them to leave their sore-covered corpses behind for the dogs to lick. Second key point: God thinks the rich should love you, too. God demands it. God sent the prophets and Moses to the rich to explain this to the rich. God expects the rich to listen.
For much of my life, I felt uncomfortable with the scriptures about wealth. Twenty years ago, I believed I was not rich and–on account of the scriptures–I felt ashamed and embarrassed for those who were. In high school I had a friend named Genevieve for whom I genuinely felt pity on account of her wealth. Her dad was an eye specialist and she lived in a big house. Many years ago I would have been reluctant to preach a sermon about wealth with Genevieve in the audience. It would have seemed ungenerous to say to her, “It’s easier for a camel to wriggle through the eye of a needle than for you to get to heaven.” Or to say, “Watch out, lest you become haughty and self-satisfied.” It would have felt uncouth and mean to bring up the “fact” that the rich are not exactly God’s favorite people, that God’s preference is for the poor.
But now, a few things have changed: first, now I identify with the rich in these stories. In the last several years I have moved from living paycheck to paycheck to living a comfortable life that seems resonant of the lives of the Biblical “rich.” Every month, I face a choice. What shall I do with all the extra money in my life? The money beyond what I need for food, shelter and clothing. Shall I spend it on going to restaurants? Shall I buy some new clothes or a new phone? Shall I save it so that later in life when I have less earning power I can still be rich? Shall I invest in some insurance so that even if something weird happens to me, I can still be rich? Or shall I acquire the warm feeling that comes from making a donation to a charitable organization? So many choices. Even though I am not an eye surgeon, I feel like the biblical writings about the rich are directed at me.
The second reason I would feel different now if Genevieve were in the audience is that I see the scriptures about wealth in the Bible as being a gift to the rich, as being a gift to me as a rich person. I no longer see God as unsympathetic to the rich, but as keenly aware of our difficult predicament and as someone who cares about me enough to lift me out of it.
Oddly enough, becoming rich has increased my desire for wealth, not lessened it. The gospel is a source of relief from that. As a rich person, the temptation to think of buying stuff as the solution to the anxieties and problems that still trouble me is great. The gospel is a source of relief from that. As a rich person, the temptation to see all problems as solvable through the spending of money is enormous. Feeling unhealthy or physically unwell? Buy a fitness class or a gym membership. Feeling anxious or lonely? Buy some entertainment. Feeling separated from your children? Buy some family entertainment. Feeling distant from your wife? Buy an expensive dinner. Feeling sad or depressed? Buy yourself some therapy. That is foolishness. And the gospel is a source of relief from that.
Let’s take another look at the end of that passage in Timothy. The message from the Epistle writer to the rich is clear: Be content with “enough.” Desire for riches is a trap. Desire is a trap. Wealth is only a solution to the problem of poverty, beyond that it is no help at all. Ruin, destruction, and all kinds of evil are the results of your discontent with “enough.” Oh, and, by the way, food and clothing count as “enough.” The epistle writer concludes with what I take as the explanation for why the “enough” threshold is so low. “The rich are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
“Take hold of the life that really is life.” The Good News for the rich is that getting rich and being rich is not really life. The dissatisfaction I feel with the things I have bought since I became rich is ok. It’s normal. Of course I am dissatisfied. Of course I want something more. What I have is life that is not life.
The solution to this problem that the world has to offer is the “middle class.” The “middle class” is a notion that our economic life can be morally neutral and bland and that our economic lives can be something separate from our moral lives and our lives as members of a community. And so we are encouraged to embrace any claim that we might have to being “middle class.” Advertisers want you to see yourselves as middle class, so that you will purchase the lifestyle that they will tell you is the just reward for being middle class. Politicians will speak to you and call you middle class, they will tell you that both you and they are in this middle class, they will praise you for being middle class, and they will promise you things as the middle class. In the Kingdom of God, though, the middle class is irrelevant. The Kingdom of God has no middle class. It only has “the rich” and “the poor” and the promises and the warnings to them are for you.
The gospel message is this: God’s love for the poor and promises to the poor are for you. Embrace them. Even if you are not poor now, you could be. You can be. You can be vulnerable. You can be pitiable. You can be weak. You can be covered in sores. And when you are, you will be beloved of God. This is good news for all of us. Your debts, your crumbling body, your seeping sores are not the “life that is really life.” Eventually, miraculously, angels will bear you away from that body and you will have relief.
But God’s promises and warnings for the rich are also blessedly for you. Each one of you is powerful. Each one of you has a beggar outside his gates calling into the night. And you must minister to that beggar. Each one of you has been given the opportunity to be kind, to be merciful, to be generous. Accept this power and this wealth as the gift from God that it is. Accept these opportunities to give, be grateful for these opportunities, be grateful to the poor who give you opportunities to minister, be grateful to God that there is someone wailing at your gates, attracting mangy dogs into your neighborhood.
But each one of you is also cautioned not to love your wealth and your power. Do not to seek after more wealth and power. Do not believe that your riches have the power to solve the problems in your life that matter. The warnings in the Bible about the rich are not just for Genevieve, they apply to all of us and we must heed them.
The glory of the gospel to the rich and the poor is available to all those who recognize themselves as those to whom it was spoken. I want to challenge you all this morning, to accept the gospel preached to the poor and to accept the gospel preached to the rich. To claim them as your own, to stop settling for middle class and to live “the life that really is life.”